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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Peel Commission Report of 1937 and the Origins of the Partition Concept

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Israel, Jordan, Palestinians, Syria, The Middle East
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 28, Numbers 1–2

No other problem of our time is rooted so deeply in the past.1

In July 1937, the members of the Royal Commission, under the leadership of William Robert Wellesley Peel, First Earl Peel, presented a detailed, revolutionary, 400-page report regarding the British Mandate in Palestine. (Lord Peel passed away two months later.) On the basis of the findings in the Report, the British Royal Commission made a number of recommendations, all of which were accepted by Parliament. Among them was that Palestine should be the “the Jewish National Home” and that a Jewish State should be established on part of the Mandate area which would become “as Jewish as England is English.” The area, known as Palestine (in Hebrew, Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel), contained important archeological sites excavated by American and European scholars.2 The establishment of a Jewish state would be part of the general transformation of the area.

A new look at the reports of the two royal commissions, the Peel Commission (1936-1937) and the Woodhead Palestine Partition Commission (1938), offers insights into the conflict between Jews and Arabs and the British proposals for its resolution. Despite the fact that eighty years have passed since the publication of the Peel Commission Report, its conclusions remain worthy of examination.

The Appointment of the Peel Commission

On December 21, 1935, the British government proposed that the Arab leaders in Palestine establish a legislative council of twenty-eight members in the western part of Mandatory Palestine. Eleven of the council members would be Muslims; seven, Jews; and three, Christians. The rest would hold various administrative positions. The head of the council would be a professional appointee from outside the region. The Arab Higher Committee (AHC) rejected this proposal and published a decision which expressed the demand by the Palestinian Arabs that the government of an independent Arab state in Palestine reflect demographic realities. The Arabs also wanted the new state to be separate from the one created in September 1922 in Eastern Palestine (later known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan).

At the same time, there was a considerable increase in immigration, mainly of European Jews fleeing from antisemitism.3 Therefore, the Arabs demanded a cessation of Jewish immigration to Palestine, an end to the sale of land to Jews and the registration of such transactions by British Mandate authorities. When their demands were not met, the Arabs rioted against the British. According to the Arabs, these outbursts were part of a rebellion whose purpose was to ensure the Arab identity of Palestine.4

On April 19, 1936, the Arab Revolt broke out. A general strike was called by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, head of the AHC. In response, the British government decided to establish a Royal Investigatory Commission with the following purpose:

To ascertain the underlying causes of the disturbances which broke out in Palestine in the middle of April; to inquire into the manner in which the Mandate for Palestine is being implemented in relation to the obligations of the Mandatory towards the Arabs and the Jews respectively; and to ascertain whether, upon a proper construction of the terms of the Mandate, either the Arabs or the Jews have any legitimate grievances upon account of the way in which the Mandate has been or is being implemented; and if the Commission is satisfied that any such grievances are well founded, to make recommendations for their removal and for the prevention of their recurrence.5

Established on August 8, 1936, the Investigative Commission presented its findings on June 22, 1937. In order to enable the Commission to function, the Mufti agreed to halt the strike. Thus, with only this request, but “officially” due to the intervention of Arab rulers, all hostile activities were suspended during the investigation. Field Marshal Sir John Greer Dill, the British military commander in Palestine, viewed this intervention as evidence of the Mufti’s total control over the rioters.6 In the detailed 400-page report released by the Commission, one may find the guiding principles behind every subsequent attempt at finding a type of solution which would divide the area into a Jewish and an Arab state. It served as a prototype for all later peace plans.

Legal Aspects: “by Rights and not on Sufferance”

In August 1936, W. F. Boustany submitted his report to the Peel Commission. Boustany, representative of the Arab cultivators in the Mudawara Lands Agreement with the Palestine Government7 was a member of the Third Palestine Arab Delegation to London in 1923. His work challenges the legality of the British Mandate in Palestine.

The major legal arguments which the Arab representatives presented to the members of the commission are as follows:

  • As early as 1915, Britain had promised the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī al-Hāshimī (1853/1854-1931), that Palestine would be a part of an independent Arab state that would arise after World War I. This commitment was given by Henry McMahon, British Commissioner in Egypt during the war and in the name of His Majesty’s government.8
  • The British Mandate in Palestine, as approved by the League of Nations, was illegal for the simple reason that it contradicted Paragraph 4 of the League of Nations Charter. According to Boustany, the Jews were a foreign nation and therefore could not be regarded as “certain communities … belonging to the Turkish Empire.”
  • In addition, the British Mandate did not recognize that the Arab community in Palestine at that time had a right to self-expression. This right was given only to the Jewish community which, in 1918, made up only about ten percent of the country’s population.9

As early as 1922, Britain attempted to explain its policy of recognizing Jewish rights in Palestine. The White Paper of 1922 states as follows:

During the last two or three generations, the Jews have recreated in Palestine a community, now numbering 80,000, of whom about one fourth are farmers or workers upon the land. The community has its own political organs; an elected assembly for the direction of its domestic concerns; elected councils in the towns; and an organization for the control of its schools… This community, then, with its town and country population, its political, religious, and social organizations, its own language, its own customs, its own life, has in fact “national” characteristics…

It may be answered that it is not the imposition of a Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole, but the further development of the existing Jewish community, with the assistance of Jews in other parts of the world, in order that it may become a center in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride. But in order that this community should have the best prospect of free development and provide a full opportunity for the Jewish people to display its capacities, it is essential that it should know that it is in Palestine as of right and not on the sufferance. That is the reason why it is necessary that the existence of a Jewish National Home in Palestine should be internationally guaranteed, and that it should be formally recognized to rest upon ancient historic connection.10

Thus, Britain explained why the Jews were indeed one of the “communities formally belonging to the Turkish Empire.” This explanation does not mention the fact that there was a Jewish community in the former Ottoman Empire with an indigenous Jewish population of over half a million, in 1917.11

The Indigenous People of Palestine12

Advocates of the Palestinian Arab cause such as Edward Said, Elia Zureik and others have described the ongoing Zionist settlement as the colonization of Palestine which began in 1880.13 Zureik also quotes Winston Churchill’s testimony to the Peel Commission:

I do not admit, for instance that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the Black people of Australia. I do not admit that wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put in that way, has come in and taken their place.14

The case of the Jews differs from the above, as Churchill admitted. This is the reason why the first chapter of the Report gives a detailed review of the Commission’s findings with regard to the historical connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The Jewish nation was presented as the only nation linked to the land by a historical presence and religious connections. The Commission argued that it was only in the land of Palestine that the Jewish people could achieve political freedom. The Report notes that the Jewish people are indigenous to the Land of Israel/Palestine because of their historical presence in the land. For example, the Commission described in detail the flourishing and influential Jewish community in Safed in the Sixteenth Century.15

In 1947, several months after the acceptance of UN Resolution 181 which called for the partition of the land, the International Committee of the Jewish Agency prepared a pamphlet that described the long-standing historical ties of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). The pamphlet, based upon Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sources noted that even after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Jews continued to live throughout the country. The Jerusalem Talmud (the Yerushalmi), also known as the Palestinian Talmud, was edited in the late Fourth Century by rabbis who lived in Palestine (Eretz Yisrael).16 During the early Islamic/Arab period (Seventh to the early Eleventh Centuries) between 100,000-200,000 Jews lived in Palestine.17 The pamphlet included only a small number of the many historical sources which show that there was always a Jewish presence in Palestine and that the historical, religious and cultural roots of the Jewish people are to be found in all parts of Palestine (Eretz Yisrael).

For example, the leading Church Father Augustine (late Fourth- early Fifth Century) noted that “the Jews live in the cities and the land of Canaan [the ancient name for the Land of Israel], and they shall live there forever after.”18 In 1899, Yousef Ḍiya’ Bāshā al-Khalidī, former Mayor of Jerusalem, sent a letter to his friend Zadoc Kahn, Chief Rabbi of France, which stated:

The idea itself is natural, fine and just. Who can challenge the rights of the Jews in Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country. What a wonderful spectacle that will be when a people as resourceful as the Jews will once again be an independent nation, honored and complacent, able to make its contribution to needy humanity in the field of morals, as in the past.19

The Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2, 1917, states that His Majesty’s Government will “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”20 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson approved this wording prior to its publication. Likewise, the government of France on February 14, 1918, and Italy, on May 9, 1918.21

Monsignor Ignace Mubarak, leader of the Lebanese Maronite Church, wrote the following to the UN Committee in 1947: “Historically, it is unquestionable that Palestine was the country of the Jews and of the first Christians. None of them was of Arab descent.”22

In addition to international political considerations, the citations mentioned above offer evidence of the uninterrupted historical link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel (Palestine).

The Prototype of a Partition Solution

The members of the Peel Commission also recognized that a Jewish state on part of the Land of Israel would serve as a solution and a sanctuary for the indigenous Jewish communities in the Middle East. Jews were persecuted and gradually began to settle in Mandatory Palestine. In April 1936, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, head of the Jewish Agency, wrote a memorandum to the British High Commissioner, Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope , about the problem of Jewish refugees from Eastern and Central Europe and from Middle Eastern countries (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and North Africa). He noted that the latter were in a state of great distress.23

In 1946, the Jewish Agency sent a memorandum to the Anglo-American Investigative Committee explaining that

The waves of immigration needed to be taken into account and also the situation of the Eastern Jewish [communities] and the lack of security that is growing in the countries that are outside of Europe.24

When the State of Israel was established in 1948, there were approximately a million indigenous Jews scattered in their communities throughout the Middle East. Immediately after the State was established, the majority of these Jews sought refuge in the Jewish state.25 Mandatory Palestine and later, Israel, became a haven for Jews who had lived in the Middle East for centuries and whose communities antedated the Muslim conquest in the Seventh Century CE.

A census taken in 1922, at the beginning of the British Mandate, reported that approximately 83,000 Jews, 71,000 Christian and 589,000 Muslims lived in Palestine.26 On July 24, 1922, the League of Nations approved the British Mandate in Palestine and explicitly reiterated the British obligation to establish a National Home in Palestine for the Jews. On September 22, the letter by Winston Churchill, the British Colonial Secretary, to the League of Nations was approved as Paragraph 25 of the Mandate. The letter called for the separation of Eastern Palestine (which later became the Kingdom of Jordan) from the area designated as part of the Jewish National Home: “In the territories lying between the Jordan [River] and the eastern boundary of Palestine.”27

The establishment of the Arab Kingdom of Jordan and the Jewish National Home in Palestine formed part of the plan for a new Middle East in the aftermath of World War I, along with the agreements between the Allies regarding their respective spheres of influence. According to a memorandum of the Jewish Agency, this was “part of a large clarification of matters which greatly influenced the Arabs and gave them independence in a wide area of the former Ottoman Empire as a result of the British victory.”28

In 1937, the Peel Commission Report acknowledged the fact that 400,000 Jews already lived in their National Home with an infrastructure that was suited to a small country in part of Palestine. Members of the Commission said that “half a loaf is better than no bread,” thereby indicating that the creation of two new states was the best solution possible for two communities which differed vastly from each other.29

A Jewish Agency memorandum of April 30, 1936, stated that, as of that date, there were 450,000 Jews in Palestine who made up 29.8 per cent of the population.30 The memorandum also described amazing accomplishments in manufacturing, agriculture, settlement, the purchase of lands, and the building of political institutions. As early as 1936, there were signs of a small Jewish State in the making.

The Peel Commission never recommended the establishment of a third state for the Arabs of Palestine because it did not find it necessary. As former subjects of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, the Palestinian Arabs were viewed as belonging to southern Syria. Arabs living both east and west of the Jordan River had ties of kinship, language and culture with the Arabs in surrounding countries.31

For this reason, the Peel Commission determined that the Arab areas of Western Palestine would be appended to the Transjordan emirate, with some million Palestinian Arab residents. The Jewish State would be established in a small area, of about seventeen per cent of Western Palestine, which constituted about four per cent of the entire area of Palestine. The two states would sign treaties with the British government and eventually join the League of Nations as sovereign states. The holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem would be connected by a narrow corridor to the Jaffa coast which would include the towns of Lydda (Lod) and Ramle. There would be a special Mandate for this area and the treatment of the two populations would be equal. The area of the Jewish State would include the Galilee, Haifa and the Carmel, and most of the Mediterranean coast from Ashdod to Rosh Hanikrah.32

In order for the agreement to become final and for the riots and pogroms to cease, the Peel Commission argued that only a transfer of populations, – the Arabs from the area of the Jewish State and the Jews in the Arab-designated area, – would solve the problems of Palestine conclusively. Approximately 225,000 Arabs and about 1,250 Jews would have to be moved. The members of the Commission were aware that there would be difficulties in selling land, and perhaps the use of force would be necessary. There was a precedent for this, however, namely, the agreement between Turkey and Greece (1922-1923), which transferred 1,300,000 Greeks from Turkey and 400,000 Turks from areas controlled by Greece. According to the Commission, creating two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews, respectively, with an exchange of land, would minimize friction and tension and bring stability to the area.33 The drafter of the Peel Report considered the solution of transfer of populations to be a viable option. According to David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Yishuv,

The implementation of this transfer is a great blessing for the Arab State – and for us it is a question of life, existence, protection of culture…freedom and independence.34

The recommendations of the Commission were revolutionary. It was the first time that an official British agency presented a detailed and reasoned report which described the Jewish National Home as a “Jewish State on the way.” The Peel Report was sent to the League of Nations and approved. The Commission thus established the principle that any part of the land settled by Jews would become part of a future Jewish state and any part settled by Arabs would become part of an Arab state. This principle opened the way for all future proposals of partition. Furthermore, Arabs in the Jewish State could sell their land or receive compensation and move to another Arab state. This principle was adopted after the War for Independence when King Abdullah I officially annexed the Arab areas captured by the Arab Legion to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank of the Jordan River and those in the Kingdom of Jordan became Jordanian citizens. Thus, the recommendations of the Peel Commission essentially were implemented.35

Arab Responses

The Arabs in Palestine were disappointed with the recommendations of the Peel Commission. At first, Raghib al-Nashashibī agreed to consider the partition plan as an option. Shortly afterward, however, he changed his mind because of public opinion among the Arabs.36 The only Arab leader who expressed support for the partition plan was King Abdullah I. A letter of June 5, 1938, to ‘Abd al-Hamid Sa’id, president of the Young Muslims in Egypt, included in the King’s memoirs, describes Jewish settlement activity in Palestine. King Abdullah points out that, whereas in 1921, the number of Jews was not more than 100,000, the Jewish population had increased to 450,000. Furthermore, the Jews had managed to purchase the most fertile lands and had settled in the valleys and on the hills from Beersheba to the Huleh Valley. There were so many Jews that an Arab traveling from one village to another could not avoid seeing Jewish settlements located between Arab villages.37 According to Abdullah, the continuation of the Mandate was a tragedy because it would enable the Jews to “purchase additional lands and permit additional [Jewish] immigration.”38

According to Abdullah, the danger to Palestine was completely different from the problems in Syria or in other Arab countries where the local Arabs demanded greater independence from a colonial regime. In Palestine, however, a foreign people was attempting to gain control of the country. Abdullah believed that in order to stop the expansion of the Yishuv, it would be necessary to accept the partition plan. He even listed the advantages of the plan for the Arabs:

The Palestinian population will grow to be over half a million brothers at one time. They [the Arabs] will be able to control a new country through a strong administration, parliament and a defense army, one budget, a beach and protected borders from any secret migration.39

King Abdullah mentioned the many advantages of partition and maintained that the Arabs in Palestine were on the brink of a catastrophe because of the failures of their leadership. He believed that there was nothing left to do but to hope that Allah would open the eyes of the Arabs in and outside Palestine in order to prevent the catastrophe of Palestine becoming a Jewish country.

Palestinian leaders ignored his warning. During the fighting in 1938, 68 British subjects, 292 Jews, and at least 1,600 Arabs were killed.40 In 1939, in terms of Arab casualties, there were some 5,000 killed and 10,000 wounded. The number of detainees was 5,679 persons. Rashid Khalidi noted “that the suffering was considerable in an Arab population of about a million: Over ten per cent of the adult male population was killed, wounded, imprisoned or exiled.”41

The Arabs in Palestine appreciated the fact that the British understood that the struggle between Arabs and Jews was about rights and self-determination and that there was no hope of proper relations between Jews and Arabs living on the same small piece of land. Arab representatives, such as Musa al-‘Alāmi, who represented the Arabs of Palestine at various Arab conferences throughout the 1940s, argued that it was not a struggle between two sides with equal rights of ownership of the land.

The Arabs demanded a halt to Jewish immigration to Palestine and to the sale of land to the Jews and the establishment of an independent Arab state similar to the other Arab states taking their first steps toward independence at the time. Even the White Paper of Malcolm MacDonald (1939) did not end Arab opposition to recognizing a Jewish minority with equal rights, despite the fact that Jews were one-third of the population.42 As Arthur Ruppin, a Zionist leader and one of founders of the Brith Shalom peace movement, which supported a bi-national state, explained: “What we can get from the Arabs at the moment is of no use to us, and what we need, we cannot get from them.”43

More recent studies have shown that Haj Amin al-Husseini succeeded in convincing France to support the Arab objections to the partition plan of the Peel Commission. The Mufti told the French that the British had approached him and proposed that the Arabs form a united “Greater Syria,” comprising Arab Transjordan, Palestine, and all of Syria and Lebanon.44 Therefore, the French High Commissioner, Damien de Martel, did not want to pressure the Mufti, who was living under the surveillance of the Sûreté in the Lebanese seaside resort of Juniyeh, because he was “no longer a man but a flag.”45 It also explains why the French allowed armed groups from Syria to infiltrate into Palestine and carry out acts of terrorism.46 Indeed, Nebih al-Asmah, brother of Syria’s Minister of the Interior, organized the Bludan Conference in order to oppose the Peel Commission Report. It became clear that the highest levels of the Syrian government supported the Arab rebels.47 Even in 1948, the Syrian leadership still feared Hashemite designs for expansion in Palestine and maintained that Abdullah’s plan would radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East and increase British influence in the region.48

Lacking any other option, the Colonial Secretary published an additional declaration in November 1938. This declaration stated that “His Majesty’s Government after careful study of the Partition Commission’s report, have reached the conclusion … that the political, administrative and financial difficulties involved in the proposal to create independent Arab and Jewish States inside Palestine are so great that this solution of the problem is impracticable.”49 Chaim Weizmann was convinced that once partition became a fact on the ground, Arab opposition would disappear. Based on reports from several experts, Malcolm MacDonald concluded, however, that the Arabs would not accept the partition plan.50 As far as the Arab High Command and the Mufti were concerned, Weizmann erred in his assessment that the AHC would seize the opportunity offered by the Peel Commission and establish an Arab state in most of Mandate Palestine, even if the price was unification and close ties with King Abdullah. King Abdullah noted in his memoirs:

The objection of uniting the two banks of the Jordan is only the work of the AHC council which forces its decisions at the same time that it is definitely without any knowledge how to come in contact with the people or how to protect the lands of the homeland. Likewise he lacks any sense of responsibility of leadership both in domestic and foreign matters.51

Furthermore, in a letter of July 24, 1934 to the British High Commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope, Abdullah stated:

The Balfour Declaration promised a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine but the open fact is that the Jews succeeded through various means, without opponents, to turn the whole of Palestine into their national home within a few years. They already decided and succeeded to carry out and reach their goal.52

According to Abdullah, the Jews used two methods to reach their goal: continuous extensive immigration and unlimited purchase of land. Abdullah’s support for the partition plan is not surprising in light of the fact that he would be its main beneficiary. He saw it as the first step of carrying out the “Greater Syria” plan under his leadership.53

He also expressed anti-Jewish sentiments:

Jewish migration and the entry into Palestine of people of different races, with different chances and with different political ideas… has turned the Holy Land into a source of active troubles. In addition to this, the land has changed from an incubator to a very dangerous social experiment which resulted in injustice…, which will fully become evident and will spread specifically into the Arab world to the broader Near East…

According to Abdullah, the Jews frightened the Arab states, because a Jewish state meant that the Jews would not eventually merge with the Arabs and their descendants. “From then and forever, I honestly hoped that the Jews would try to be different from the way they looked.”54 This did not stop Abdullah from maintaining contacts with Zionists who supported partition in 1936 and in 1947-1948.55

Abdullah’s argument was not convincing. In September 1937, the Mufti assembled representatives of all of the Arab states at Bludan, Syria, where he proclaimed the absolute rejection of partition. He said that Palestine was “the Holy Region of our Fatherland,” and an inseparable part of the Arab union. The proposal of the Peel Commission was rejected because it was an attempt to prevent the struggle of the AHC for a single Arab state. There were 424 representatives at the conference. They came from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. According to Martin Gilbert, this show of strength left the British with no choice but to examine an alternative to the plan of the Peel Commission.56

The Solution of Two States or a Return to a Bi-national State

The Jewish Agency had its doubts about accepting the principle of dividing the land and immediately establishing a Jewish State in order to provide a place of refuge for the Jews of Europe who had begun to flee Nazi Germany. The Twentieth Zionist Council voted 300-150 to negotiate with the Woodhead Commission which had been sent to test the viability of carrying out the recommendations of the Peel Commission.57 The major political leaders who supported partition were David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

The Palestine Partition Commission, headed by Sir John Ackroyd Woodhead, issued a report which advocated limiting a Jewish State to a small area of the coastal plain and dropped the idea of a population transfer. According to Benny Morris, “the commission had ostensibly been set up to look into ways of implementing the Peel Partition recommendation; but, in effect, its mandate was to bury the Peel proposal and the idea of partition.”58

The Jewish Agency sent a detailed memorandum to the Woodhead Commission which mentioned the necessity of expanding the area of the Jewish State, as the recommendations of the Peel Commission applied only to a very small area. The memorandum presented three main reasons for enlarging the Jewish area:

  • To absorb a large number of Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe.
  • To establish a broader agricultural base.
  • To create a land-base large enough for industry, commerce and services for the future state.

Therefore, the Jewish Agency recommended that the area of the proposed state be extended southward to the environs of the present city of Ashkelon. Enlarging the area of the Jewish State to the south meant that it would also include a part of the Northern Negev. Likewise, to the north, the Jewish state would require the annexation of part of the Jordan Valley in the area of the Yarmuk, the entire Bet Shean Valley and the area of Naharayim. The members of the Woodhead Commission rejected this proposal outright because there were 24,300 Arabs in that area and a negligible number of Jews. Hence, it was opposed to the “terms of reference to include the fewest possible Arabs and Arab enterprises in that land.”59

Additional suggestions by the Jewish Agency, such as increasing the area of the Galilee to include the Wadi Ara road which would enable movement between the coast, the Jezreel Valley and the areas of Jewish settlement in the Galilee also were rejected for the same reason. Similarly, the Woodhead Commission rejected a proposal to include Hebron in order to protect its holy places. Despite the fact that the Commission recognized the historic link of the Jewish people to Hebron, site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the capital city of Judah under King David, it maintained that there was no justification for removing it from the proposed Arab state. The Commission only promised free access for Jews to their holy places as part of the agreement with the Arab state.60 Dr. Bernard Dov Joseph (Dov Yosef), a leader of the Yishuv from the Mapai (Labor) faction, regarded the decisions of the Woodhead Commission as the major reason for British rejection of the idea of partition.61 The Woodhead Commission Report even includes a proposal for the division of Jerusalem into two separate Arab and Jewish areas. West Jerusalem, similar to the Jordanian-Israeli frontier in 1948, would be added to the Jewish state. An anonymous memorandum sent by the Jewish Agency to members of the Commission stated that “a Jewish state without Jerusalem is like a body without a soul.” The Jewish Agency also maintained that there were 70,000 Jews living in West Jerusalem where the major Jewish institutions, such as the Hebrew University, the National Library, the Jewish Agency and the Chief Rabbinate were located. Therefore, it was necessary to include at least a part of the western part of the city under the sovereignty of the new Jewish state. The Woodhead Commission rejected this claim as well. The Commission brought up administrative arguments regarding the difficulties of controlling the borders of the city. The decisive argument, however, was the religious and political problem of placing part of Jerusalem under the sovereignty the city of a future Jewish state.

We have been assured by persons well qualified to express an opinion that Muslims throughout the world would be most vehemently opposed to the inclusion of any part of Jerusalem in the Jewish State, that they would regard the establishment of a Jewish State overlooking the Moslem Holy Places as the first step towards the ultimate absorption of the Old City by the Jews, and that a decision to include part of Jerusalem with the Jewish State would inevitably lead to disorders of the most serious kind.62

Eventually, the Woodhead Commission recommended Plan C (see illustration). This included a Jewish State from the coast of Zichron Ya’akov and the slopes of Mt. Carmel to Tel Aviv, with an additional enclave in the Rishon le-Zion-Rehovot area.63 According to Dov Yosef, such a small state (similar to the size of Gaza Strip today), with a Jewish population of 226,000, and a small minority of Arabs (54,400), could surely live in peace with its neighbors without the need for transferring any Arabs.64 He concluded that the entire basis of the Woodhead Commission’s conclusions was fallacious: “It examined the position in Palestine as it was – statically – and on this basis decided the Peel partition plan could not work.”65

Thomas Reid, a member of the Commission, objected to any partition plan:

None of the witnesses… suggested that the Arabs would consent to partition or accept quietly the fait accompli, if partition were implemented. These statements give a balanced view of the written evidence referred to. They all tend to indicate that partition would not produce peace, but that was the tenor of the evidence, while there was an absence of evidence to the contrary.66

Reid was correct. The Palestinian Arabs opposed the findings both of the 1937 Peel Commission and of the 1938 Woodhead Commission. In 1939, at the St. James Conference in London, the Arabs refused to sit in the same room or shake hands with the Jews.67 In 1945, Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, wrote to Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill that:

The establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine will be a strong attack on the Arabs and a threat to peace. It is inevitable that unrest will prevail between Arabs and Jews. If the patience of the Arabs runs out, and they give up hope, they will defiantly defend their land and the future generation.68

The Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who collaborated with Nazi Germany, was wanted as a war criminal. Therefore, other Arab leaders, such as Ibn Saud, presented the Palestinian case before the Allies. He stated: “We congratulate the Allies on their victory [in the Second World War] and hope that they are aware of Arab rights in Palestine.”69 In 1947, the United Nations accepted Resolution 181 which called for partition as a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. The Jews agreed to this plan, but the Arabs rejected it and launched a war against the Yishuv.

On September 16, 1948, UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. mediator, recommended that the Arab area of Palestine (without the Gaza Strip) become a part of the Kingdom of Jordan due to its historical connection and common interests.70 His plan was similar to the Peel Partition Plan. The Arabs again rejected it, and Israel’s subsequent victory left the Jewish state much bigger than any proposed partition plan.


Edward Said remarked that “the word peace acquired a sinister uncomfortable meaning for the Arabs at just the time that Israeli publicists used it at every opportunity.”71 Every compromise solution was bound to fail. Eighty years have passed since the Peel and Whitehead Commissions proposed the establishment of two separate states. The Palestinian Arabs, however, are not yet ready for compromise.

The Peel Commission represents the first and the most comprehensive attempt to bring about a lasting peace agreement between the Jewish people and the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine. The partition plan was based upon the concept of dividing the area into two unequal parts: The Palestinian Arab part (including the Kingdom of Jordan today) on 96 per cent of the land (approximately 111,750 km2) and a small Jewish state (about 4,589 km2) which would include the Galilee and a narrow strip on the Mediterranean coast which would incorporate Tel Aviv, with a narrow corridor containing the holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It would be connected to Jaffa and was intended to remain under British control until a better solution could be found. Most of the Arab states, led by the Mufti, objected to these proposals and regarded them as a declaration of war against the Arab world.

Usually one does not ask historians what would have happened had the Arabs of Palestine accepted the partition plan of the Peel Commission. It may not have been a success. However, it is clear that its premises and positions still represents the prototype of a solution to the problem. The proposal of a large stable Arab country and a smaller Jewish state in the area of Mandatory Palestine have retained their appeal, even to the present.

The conclusion of the Peel Commission Report reads as follows:

Nor is it only the British people, nor only the nations which conferred the Mandate or approved it, who are troubled by what has happened and is happening in Palestine. Numberless man and women all over the world would feel a sense of deep relief if somehow an end could be put to strife and bloodshed in a thrice-hallowed land.72

Thus, the vision of peace through compromise and partition endures in the spirit of the Peel Commission’s proposed solution.

Plan C of Partition: A Jewish Mini-state

Click on the map to enlarge.

Plan C of Partition: A Jewish Mini-state
The British Partition Plan as shown in “Plan C” of the Palestine Partition Commission Report of 1938.  The Commission which produced this report was led by Sir John Woodhead.

* * *


1 William R. W. Peel, J. M. Martin, Horace Rumbold, Laurie Hammond, Wm. Morris Carter, Harold Morris and Reginald Coupland, Palestine Royal Commission Report (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, July 1937), 2.

2 Va’ad Leumi, Three Historical Memoranda (Jerusalem: General Council of the Jewish Community in Palestine, 1947), 3-16.

3 Muhammad Musbah Hamdan, Al-Isti’mar wa-al-Sahyunia al-Alamia [Colonialism and World Zionism] (Sidon: Dar al-Kutba al-Asriya, 1967), 178-179.

4 Ibid., 181-184.

5 William R. W. Peel, et al., Palestine Royal Commission Report, ix.

6 James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East (London: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 172.

7 Mudawara means “transferred” or “turned around.” On November 19, 1921, the British Mandate government signed an agreement with the representatives of the population in Beisan area (the Bet She’an Valley and the Jordan Valley) that it recognized their ownership over the Miri lands that were under their control from the time of the Turkish sultan. See: Dov Gavish, The Survey of Palestine under the British Mandate, 1920-1948 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 105.

8 W.F. Boustany, The Palestine Mandate: Invalid and Impartible (Beirut: American Press, 1936), 38-47.

9 Ibid., 24-37. Rashid Khalidi, “The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure,” in: Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 18-19.

10 Winston Churchill, British White Paper, June 3, 1922, in: Gregory S. Mahler and Alden R.W. Mahler, The Arab Israeli Conflict: An Introduction and Documentary Reader (Abingdon: Rutledge, 2010), 55.

11 Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House, A History of Jews in Muslim Lands (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010), 162-177. In Iraq alone, there were over 120,000 Jews.

12 See: Rivka Shpak Lissak, When and How the Jewish Majority in the Land of Israel was Eliminated: Are the Palestinians Descendants of Islamized Jews (Bloomington: Xlibris, 2015); Jonathan Adelman, The Rise of Israel: A History of Revolutionary State (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008).

13 Edward Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” Social Text, 1: 22; Elia Zureik, Israel’s Colonial Project in Palestine: Brutal Pursuit (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 49-94.

14 Elia Zureik, Israel’s Colonial Project, 213.

15 William R. W. Peel, et al., Palestine Royal Commission Report, 11-15. See also: Va’ad Leumi, Three Historical Memoranda, 56-60; Bernard Lewis (1954). “Studies in the Ottoman Archives–I.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 16, 3, 469–501.

16 Va’ad Leumi, Three Historical Memoranda, 20-21.

17 Ibid., 31-32.

18 De Civitate Dei (City of God), Patrologia Latina, 41, chapter 21, col. 499, as quoted in: Va’ad Leumi, Three Historical Memoranda, 23.

19 Sari Nusseibeh with Antony David, Once Upon Country (Tel-Aviv: Schocken Publishing House, 2007), 23. “A Quote from Arab Mayor of Jerusalem,” The Elder of Zion website blog, March 9, 2011,

20 Gregory S. Mahler and Alden R.W. Mahler, The Arab Israeli Conflict, 51.

21 William R. W. Peel, et al., Palestine Royal Commission Report, 22.

22 Matthew Hughes, “Collusion across the Litani? Lebanon and the 1948 War,” in Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 205.

23 Chaim Weizmann, “Memorandum presented by the Jewish Agency for Palestine to the General Secretary of the League of Nations, for the diligent study by the Committee on the Mandate.” The reference comes from the accompanying letter to the memorandum which was presented to His Majesty, the Chief Commissioner for Palestine, April 30, 1936, 2.

24“A Memorandum of the Jewish Agency for Palestine to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry,” (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1946), 36.

25 Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House, 208-236, 310-324.

26 William R. W. Peel, et al., Palestine Royal Commission, 43.

27 Ibid., 37.

28“Memorandum of the Jewish Agency for Palestine to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry,” 23.

29 William R. W. Peel, et al., Palestine Royal Commission, 394-396.

30 Chaim Weizmann, “Memorandum presented to the Jewish Agency for Palestine,” 3-4.

31 Moshe Sharon, “Palestine in the Islamic and the Ottoman Period,” in: Michael Curtis, Joseph Neyer, Chaim I. Waxman and Allen Pollack, eds., The Palestinians: People History and Politics (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1975), 19-20. Maan Abu Nawar, The Jordanian-Israeli War, 1948-1951: A History of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (Reading, U.K.: Garner Publishing Limited, 2002), 335, 347, 379.

32 William R. W. Peel, et al., Palestine Royal Commission, 380-393. See the Partition Map of the Report at the end of this article.

33 Ibid., 374-376.

34 Benny Morris, “Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948,” in: Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 40-41.

35 Ya’acob Caroz, “The Palestinians: Who They Are,” in: Michael Curtis et al., The Palestinians, 77-80.

36 Yehoshua Porat, Mi-Mehumot le-Meridah: Ha-Tenuah Ha-Leumit Ha-Aravit Ha-Falastinit, 1929 -1939 (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 1978), 271-275.

37 ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Husayn, Al-Takamlah min Mudhkarat Hadra Saheb al-Glalah al-Hasemiya al-Malek ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Husayn, trans. Dan Suan (Jerusalem: Arbel Publishing House, 1954), 148.

38 Ibid., 149.

39 Ibid.

40 Nicholas Bethell, The Palestine Triangle: the Struggle between the British, the Jews and the Arabs, 1935-48 (London: Steimatzky’s Agency LTD, 1979), 36.

41 Rashid Khalidi, “The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure,” in: Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 26.

42 Musa Alami, The Future of Palestine (Beirut: Hermon Books, 1970), 46-49. This book was originally written in 1947 by the Arab Office headed by Alami.

43 Alex Bein, ed., Arthur Ruppin: Memories, Diaries, Letters (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), 276.

44 James Barr, A Line in the Sand, 183.

45 MEC (Middle East Center, St Antony’s College, Oxford), Tegart Papers, 3/5, Tegart note, n.d. on his visit to Beirut and Damascus, 1937; SHAT (Service Historical de l’Armée de Terre, Paris), 4H 316, Louisgrand to General, Deuxième Bureau, Oct. 5, 1945.

46 James Barr, A Line in the Sand, 172-190.

47 Ibid., 179.

48 Joshua Landis, “Syria and the Palestine War: Fighting King ‘Abdullah’s ‘Greater Syria’ Plan,” in: Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds, The War for Palestine, 176-178.

49 Malcolm MacDonald, Statement by His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom (four pages, published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office, November, 1938).

50 Nicholas Bethell, The Palestine Triangle, 39.

51 ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Husayn, Al-Takamlah min Mudhkarat, 36.

52 Ibid., 141.

53 Yehoshua Porat, Mi-Mehumot Le-Meridah: Ha-tenuah Ha-Leumit Ha-Aravit Ha-Falastinit, 273.

54 ‘Abd Allāh ibn al-Husayn, Al-Takamlah min Mudhkarat, 142.

55Abdullah was an original thinker in view of his support for the advantages of partition. See: Eugene L. Rogan, “Jordan and 1948: the Persistence of an Official History,” in: Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 106-110.

56 Martin Gilbert, In Ishmael’s House, 173.

57 Jonathan Adelman, The Rise of Israel: A History of a Revolutionary State (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 172.

58 Benny Morris, “Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948,” in: Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 44.

59 John Woodhead, Alison Russell, A.P. Waterfield and S. E. V. Luke, Palestine Partition Commission Report (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, October 1938), 111-112.

60 Ibid., 113-114.

61 Bernard Joseph, British Rule in Palestine (Washington D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1948), 120-121.

62 John Woodhead, et al., Palestine Partition Commission Report, 77.

63 Ibid., 99-110.

64 Ibid., 232- 246.

65 Bernard Joseph, British Rule in Palestine, 140.

66 John Woodhead, et al., Palestine Partition Commission Report, 266.

67 Jonathan Adelman, The Rise of Israel, 81-82.

68 Madawi al-Rasheed, “Saudi Arabia and the 1948 Palestine War: Beyond Official History,” in: Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 238.

69 Ibid.

70 PRO (Public Record Office). FO 816/129. Letter from A. Kirkbride, British Ambassador to Jordan, to Said al-Mufti, Jordanian Prime Minister, September 23, 1948; Elad Ben-Dror, Ralph Bunche and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: Mediation and the UN: 1947–1949 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 61-95.

71 Edward W. Said, “Afterword: the Consequence of 1948,” in, Eugene L. Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., The War for Palestine, 254.

72 Peel et. Al., Palestine Royal Commission, 396.